Kingmaker "the stolen lands"
The Stag Lord’s Fort Six months ago
Akiros Ismort surveyed the woman at the gate from his vantage in the northern guard post. “Open the gate!” He turned away from the woman’s smile as she rode inside with the Thorn River Camp’s spoils. Akiros never smiled back, and he tired of the pretense that they were somehow friends.
It was Jex the Snitch on watch, and he had no trouble grinning down at Kressle. “Oh, I’d like to take that young filly for a ride, eh, Akiros? Bet she’d gallop, all right, gallop like a prize.”
A steely gray eye caught Jex’s breath and the bandit closed his mouth. The Stag Lord’s second-in-command was notorious for his lack of humor, especially where women were concerned. When Akiros was satisfied that the Snitch’s mouth would move no longer while he was in earshot of it’s degenerate mumblings, Akiros turned around, descending the stairs to the armory.
A deep but childlike voice called to him from the cracked platform of the central tower. “Hey Kyrie! Look what I gots!”
Akiros stopped, doing his best to conceal his annoyance and force a smile. “What have you got there, Auchs?”
The hulking brute held up a small rodent by the tail, its legs scrambling fruitlessly in mid-air. “I found me a mousey!” Auchs shouted, unable to contain his pride at the accomplishment.
“That’s a rat,” Akiros said.
Auchs dangled the animal back and forth. “I’m gonna call him Mister Mousey. He’s gonna be my pet.”
“Right. Play nice.”Akiros continued down, shaking his head. In only an hour or two, Auchs would pet or squeeze the animal until it squealed it’s last and if Auchs was very lucky, it wouldn’t bite him with its last ounce of life, transmitting some disease. He belonged in a sanitarium, under the care of priests, not alone and unsupervised in a dank fort, used for his brawn and encouraged in his cruelty.
The source of that encouragement was leaning against the door to the armory, watching Akiros with feline predator’s grace and a sickeningly disingenuous smile. Dovan from Nisroch. Akiros did his best to avoid the man as he passed, but Dovan took great pleasure in outstretching his leg just a little more, so they rubbed against each other, a predator marking his territory.
“Keep your limbs to yourself or you might just lose them,” Akiros growled.
Dovan replied in his silky voice. “My my, wouldn’t want you to lose your temper, paladin. Erastil knows what might happen then…”
Without warning, Akiros had his arm against Dovan’s throat. The speed with which he lashed out surprised even Dovan. “You get just one warning,” Akiros whispered. “Speak of my god again and not even Erastil himself will keep me from reaching down your throat and removing that shriveled lump you call a heart.”
“Wouldn’t that be something to see,” Dovan said gleefully. The point of his rapier was on Akiros’ carotid artery. “One of these days, Ismort, that temper of yours is going to get the best of you…”
“I’ll make sure you’re there to see it.” He released Dovan’s throat and the rapier was withdrawn from his own. They stepped away from each other in time to greet Kressle.
In the yard, a young boy led Kressle’s horse away, his eyes staring hatefully at the slim, slight man in black leather. Dovan noticed the glare, seemed to feed on the hatred in it.
“What’s with Valkeri?” Kressle asked, nodding at the boy. “He’s not talking today?”
Dovan smiled knowingly. “Cat got his tongue.”
Kressle shrugged. “Anything on the spit?”
Akiros nodded. “Roast turkey.” She slipped past them into the armory, since the only door to the roasting room was through there. Once she was gone, he said quietly, “I never did get an explanation why Valkeri came back from that raid without a tongue.”
“Just a minor correction. I think it suits him, don’t you? And you’d be amazed how much roomier his mouth is now.”
Akiros spat, willing himself to turn his head first. “Pederast filth.”
“Oh how high and mighty the paladin stands. We can’t all be eunuchs like you. Anyway, the boy had a fresh mouth. Didn’t respect the chain of command.”
“Because he wouldn’t whore himself to you?” Akiros demanded, his blood beginning to boil.
Dovan smiled. “Goodness, no. I’m a very persuasive lover. But there was a minor disagreement concerning the taking of prisoners. I felt captives would weight us down, he felt he had the right to speak otherwise.”
“We don’t take captives,” Akiros said. “That’s a standing order.”
“Naturally. Which is why I couldn’t understand the fuss when I started cutting their throats…but the little brat wouldn’t shut up about it. He learned his lesson.”
The boiling rage within the former paladin went chill as his blood became ice. He’d become accustomed to the suffering of others, those he might have once deemed innocent before his world proved itself a hollow shell, even growing to respect the power of his rage and the simplicity of this brutal existence. People died, sometimes his men, sometimes those they preyed on, but he’d never condoned or practiced the casual slaughter Dovan spoke of now with that sadistic gleam in his eye.
Akiros put his hand on the hilt of his sword, so focused on Dovan, who could taste his outrage and the depthless, nameless emotion rising now within his enemy, that he did not hear the boot steps behind him. So many pointless deaths. So many lives cut short by the blade of a monster. So many days here, in this place, devoted to an ideal that was nothing short of nihilism. Community, yes, and a countenance as ugly as the rot beneath, but a community ruled by fear that welcomed and forgave the unforgivable.
One stroke. Just one stroke of his sword to change the course of his life as a sudden flash of anger had changed it years ago.
A heavy gloved hand gripped Akiros’ shoulder. “You know how I feel about dissension in the ranks.”
Without another thought, his hand slipped off the blade’s hilt and hen turned to face his employer. “Apologies, lord. I was just taking issue with the manner in which Dovan disciplined one of the men.”
The Stag Lord cut an imposing figure, all but his mouth and dark eyes hidden by the mask of bone and antler, his bare chest carved with muscle, darkened by sun and curls of hair. If someone had told Akiros this was not a man but a beast, half-bear and half-stag, he would have believed them. “The boy…”
“Yes, lord. Your men range far and wide, paying tribute out of loyalty. Loyalty can’t be bought by cutting out tongues.”
The Stag Lord nodded thoughtfully. “And what have you to add, my old friend from Nisroch?”
Dovan smiled. “The boy is weak. This is no place for the weak. What I did to him, what I continue to do to him, will make him hate. There’s strength in pain and hate.”
“So very true,” the Stag Lord said. His arm was in motion before Dovan’s smile could be struck from his face. The blow was quick and brutal, drawing blood from the bandit lieutenant’s mouth and knocking him to the floor. “Perhaps you should save some lessons for yourself. Akiros, strike me.”
Within the helm, the Stag Lord’s gravelly voice intoned, loud enough for the others to hear, “The lord who strikes his servant is a coward! The lord who shares his servant’s punishment begins to understand. Draw your sword, Akiros. Now!”
Kressle stood in the door to the armory, watching quietly.
Akiros drew his sword, still hesitating. The Stag Lord spread his arms, leaving his bare chest fully exposed. Saying a silent prayer to Erastil, Akiros swung the blade, slicing cleanly through the Stag Lord’s flesh. The man did not wince, did not show any outward sign of pain or injury, save the deep crimson gash.
Dovan lay on the floor, eyes wide, touching his cut lip. The Stag Lord pointed at him. “Do not take from another man in my kingdom unless you’re prepared to bleed as he bleeds. Forget that again and it will be your tongue.” He walked away, leaving Dovan on the floor.
Akiros remembered something then that his father had taught him as he watched the thin, dark-haired man pull himself up. Never leave an animal wounded.
“You’re right, of course,” Dovan said sweetly, dogging the Stag Lord’s steps. He removed a leather flask from his belt, offering it with a smile. “I overstepped my authority, lesson learned. Now, why don’t we tend to that wound of yours.” He gave the flask a shake. “Nothing takes the edge off a nice cut quite like this. Believe me, I know my liquor almost as well as I know wounds.”
Akiros watched with disgust as the Stag Lord reached for the flask, his hand trembling with anticipation. He turned away before the drink was to his scarred lips. Kressle caught Akiros’ eye. He knew what she wanted and he felt just loathsome enough to let her take it.
As they kissed, he slammed shut the door to the armory, her hands already undoing his armor. Kressle was ravenous and he wanted to be devoured. It was not love that they made, rolling in the dirt. He knew better and so did she. Kressle squeezed him with her thighs and bit his ear hard enough to draw blood. The pain focused him. There was no pleasure in it, not for him. He could hear her edging toward her release and it didn’t take long for him to match her pace. When it was over, she tried to kiss him again and he pulled away.
Far from being hurt, she grinned. “Just testing you. Thanks for the ride.”
They lay naked a while, enjoying each other’s warmth. He turned to her. “If you could start again, would you?”
“I didn’t think you had that kind of stamina,” she said, smirking.
“I mean your life. Would you leave all this behind and try again…if you could?”
Kressle propped herself up by her elbows. “And do what? Run away with you? Did I fuck your brains out?”
“This isn’t about me,” Akiros said.
She rolled her eyes and started to dress. “You’ve always got to ruin a good thing. It’s never just sex for you. You’ve always got to get philosophical. Look, this is it. This is all there is. You’re either one of these people wandering from place to place with your life in a wagon or you’re us.”
“The people robbing that wagon,” he muttered.
Kressle turned to him, furious. “He made us strong. We’re better because of him. You’re either strong, or you get stepped on.”
He thought of Dovan. “Maybe some of us are worse.”
“Don’t go soft on me,” she said, standing and tugging on her shirt. “I was here before you. This used to be home, remember? Late nights on the bank of the Tuskwater and boxing in caravans. You were this angry force of nature, like him.” Kressle smiled and touched his bare chest with her toe. “Only better. I could have you.”
“He’s not what he was.”
Kressle shrugged. “I think he’s better. I think you bring it out of him. Just like he reached into us and made us better.”
“Even if you were right, what’s it all for?” Akiros asked.
“Are you kidding? We’re going to rule the Greenbelt. The Narlmarches are already ours. I’m going to keep pushing north until Rostland can feel us biting them in the ass. We’re going to be Pitax, only better.”
“A bandit kingdom,” he said quietly.
“A real kingdom, without all the bullshit nobility and pretty dresses and people starving in the street. Here, you stand up and take what’s yours or you don’t deserve to be here.”
He wanted to say that these were the dreams of the young, that he’d heard it all before in the mouths of men who preached strength but wallowed in weakness, and that a kingdom worth ruling wasn’t one where the streets were devoid of poor because the strong had crushed them all underfoot. He wanted to, but didn’t. Kressle was young. At times it seemed she was impossibly young.
Akiros was too old for fairy tales.
“Go on,” he told her. “Auchs will want to see you before you head out.”
She nodded. “He’s got a brain like a potato, but god, he makes me laugh. You coming?”
He laced his pants and started collecting his armor. “In a minute.”
Kressle opened the armory door but he closed it again. She looked at him expectantly.
“I want you to promise me something.”
She laughed. “Come on, you don’t really think a little tumble now and then and one really good summer means you get to order me around, do you? You couldn’t keep me back when you had me.”
“Not an order,” Akiros said. “A promise.”
“Promise me if something better comes along, something real…I want you to promise if it comes along, I will never see you at this place again. You’ll follow it wherever it leads and you will never look back.”
Kressle looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. “What are you talking about? It? What’s it?”
“You’ll know it when you see it.”
She shrugged. “Fine, if this magical better than whatever comes along, I’ll see where it goes. I promise…but you’ve got to make this stupid promise, too.”
Akiros touched the hilt of his sword and thought of Dovan. “I already have.”